- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

There are definitely holes in this story. Some really big holes, in fact.

NASA announced the results yesterday of an unprecedented, nine-month “all-sky survey” that yielded the first complete head count of every single black hole in our neck of the universe: More than 200 exist, so many that the heavens are “peppered” with them, one researcher said.

“We are confident we are seeing every active supermassive black hole within 400 million light-years of Earth,” said project leader Jack Tueller of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), these larger black holes can have the mass of 1 billion suns and gravitational field so strong that nothing escapes, including light.

“You can’t understand the universe without understanding black holes,” said Goddard researcher Richard Mushotsky, who compiled census findings gleaned from the survey.

“Perhaps as much as 20 percent of all radiated energy in the universe — most X-rays, large fractions of ultraviolet and infrared lights and a good deal of radio waves — arise in one way or another from AGN activity.”

The research also revealed details of another phenomenon that scientists call “cocooned black holes” because the dust around them makes them almost invisible.

The survey relied on data from three telescopes that monitor gamma rays and their signature afterglow from aboard Swift satellite. The satellite was launched two years ago in a joint project with Pennsylvania State University and space agencies from eight countries. The results were announced in San Francisco before the American Astronomical Society.

“It’s hard to believe the whole sky is peppered with black holes,” said Craig Markwardt, who had been tasked with compiling the raw satellite data into comprehensive images.

Indeed, Mr. Markwardt’s new map of black holes, galaxy clusters and other cosmic entities is a gaudy pattern of colorful dots, including bright blue and brilliant green for those black holes, orange for supernovas and mysterious black for “unknown.”

NASA also shared a few intimate details about a particularly gregarious black hole in the heart of M87, a galaxy in the Virgo constellation about 50 million light-years from Earth. It has generated low-pitched but dissonant tones for eons. The phenomenon has been deemed the “black hole musical, epic but off-key” and a “cacophony of deep sound” by researchers with Chandra, a combined observatory/satellite launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999.

“We can tell that many deep and different sounds have been rumbling through this cluster for most of the lifetime of the universe,” said research partner William Forman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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